Windsor wrestlers ready for big stage at state championship meet

On Wednesday, March 4, Windsor High School wrestlers Beau Colombini, left and Dominic DuCharme prepare for this weekend's CIF state wrestling meet in Bakersfield. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

On Wednesday, March 4, Windsor High School wrestlers Beau Colombini, left and Dominic DuCharme prepare for this weekend’s CIF state wrestling meet in Bakersfield. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

This is a week of big pressure for the Windsor High kids as they weigh in for the CIF State Boys Wrestling Championships in Bakersfield. Yes, they will eat at Sonic Burger when the tournament is over Sunday and stop at Harris Ranch on the way home for a fat steak, the reward for months of staying lean.

But before they left Windsor on Thursday morning, they had to deal with the stress of deciding which six movies to watch in coach Rich Carnation’s Ford Excursion on the long drives there and back.

“It’s a tradition I started with Cody (Howe) when we went down to state (in 2008 and 2009),” Carnation said Wednesday as his four state-bound wrestlers completed their final tune-up practice. “To get the kids just being kids again for five hours. Because they’re gonna have to be very adult-ish, very mature for two sustained days, where every thought, everything you do has to be just precise.”

The CIF championships are, indeed, a world apart for most high school wrestlers. Kids used to dominating at the league level are suddenly pitted against elite opponents, in a facility that holds more than 10,000 people.

“I think the biggest problem last year was I got stunned by the big Rabobank Arena and the big lights,” Windsor senior Noah Au-Yeung said. “That took me my first match. I was overwhelmed coming out of the tunnel. Like our coach said yesterday, it’s like coming out of a hose and you just see everything, and it’s like ‘whoa.’ ”

Eight local wrestlers qualified for the state meet with top-three finishes at the North Coast Section championships last weekend: Cardinal Newman’s Michael Klee (145 pounds), El Molino’s Anthony Gemini (132), Ukiah’s Joey Gradek (152), Healdsburg’s Jacob Sloma (170) and the four boys from Windsor — Au-Yeung (126), Dominic DuCharme (152), Beau Colombini (160) and Anthony Spallino (195).

This has become a rite of passage for the Jaguars, who have clearly established the gold standard of Sonoma County wrestling. Windsor has claimed the past four Division 2 Redwood Empire titles, and added an NCS crown in 2014.

It’s a well-oiled program by now, with a life that extends beyond the high school mat room.

The Windsor youth wrestling club consistently draws 50 to 60 kids, Carnation said, and the junior high team generally has anywhere from 35 to 50. That gives Windsor High a deep pool of relatively experienced talent.

“I always kind of knew I’d end up wrestling here,” Spallino said. “I grew up wrestling in club with a lot of the older guys who were here.”

Once athletes get to Windsor High, they are blessed with top-notch facilities, campus and community support, and respected assistant coaches like Howe, Dan Dennis and Joe DuCharme (Dominic’s brother), all of whom wrestled at the D-I level in college.

None of which is to suggest that things have come easy to the Windsor kids. This is, after all, wrestling.

Take Spallino, the smiley 195-pounder. He broke his wrist a couple times when he was a kid. And during his sophomore year, he fractured his femur during a summer football camp. Doctors told him he’d miss six months of sports; he was on the football field after four. Two weeks later, he promptly broke his wrist. When Spallino finally started wrestling that year, he went off the mat during a match and busted the wrist.

This year, he cracked a bone in the same wrist playing football.

“I didn’t even know he had broke his arm for three weeks,” Carnation said. “I show up at our Pop Warner fundraiser thing, he’s got a cast on his arm. Now, he’s already broken it once before. I thought it was a joke: ‘Anthony, that’s not funny. Take that thing off.’ ”

No joke, but Spallino overcame his delayed start and wound up taking second place in the NCS meet at Union City.

Carnation noted Spallino’s raw strength and said that his sunny nature belies a toughness in competition.

Au-Yeung’s trials came earlier in life. He started wrestling in fourth grade and began his career 0-2 — as in zero wins in his first two years of wrestling.

“Little kids don’t really have technique too much,” Au-Yeung explained. “It’s mostly about aggression, and I was always a very soft kid. I was always making friends on the playground instead of wanting to fight anybody. So it took me a long time to get used to it.

“Wrestling has definitely helped me as a person, because I used to be just a ‘yes’ person, like, ‘OK, I’ll go do that for you.’ It’s given me more confidence.”

Au-Yeung’s mother encouraged him to quit the sport, but he stayed with it out of stubbornness, and largely because he was determined to beat one kid: Brian Guerrero, who wound up as a top wrestler at Rancho Cotate. After years of losing to Guerrero, Au-Yeung finally got his friend last year.

Au-Yeung, the only senior among Windsor’s state wrestlers (the rest are juniors) is a standout student, and Carnation said he brings that intelligence to the wrestling mat.

DuCharme and Colombini might give the Jaguars their best chances at a medal finish — that is, top eight in their weight classes — this year. Both are section champions. According to The California Wrestler website, DuCharme is ranked ninth in the state at 152 pounds, Colombini 10th at 160, putting both on the cusp of medaling.

It’s common for kids to move up in weight class as they progress through their high school years. A division a year is common, sometimes two. DuCharme hit a growth spurt and rocketed up four weight classes between his sophomore and junior years, encountering a whole new set of opponents.

“I went up that much, and guys weren’t as quick, weren’t as fast,” he said. “I felt I was able use it to my advantage.”

DuCharme, whose father, Nate, was an accomplished wrestler and MMA fighter, has long arms and good flexibility. Carnation calls him “an amazing technician.”

Colombini comes from wrestling stock, too. His dad, Brett, was a California state champion who won 111 matches at the University of Minnesota, which ranked sixth in school history when he graduated in 1995. Beau Colombini is Carnation’s finisher.

“Beau loves pinning people,” the coach said. “He’s so strong, but he doesn’t just rely on his strength. He uses his strength to accentuate his technique.”

The state wrestling tournament is the sharpest edge of competition. A single slip-up can mean elimination, and the Windsor wrestlers know it. But they are blessed with one certainty. It’s more satisfying to sit in Carnation’s truck and watch those movies with friends occupying the other seats.

“It’s just a lot more fun,” Spallino said. “It’s kind of cool to see your teammates succeed, too. We’re like brothers in arms.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.